A real-life whodunit comes to HCMC

I was a bit of a mystery nerd as a kid. While my contemporaries were playing Little League, I was curled up in a corner reading the latest adventures of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I shook my head in disbelief every time Sherlock Holmes pulled off one of his cheeky disguises, making Mission Impossible seem like child’s play. My high school French came in handy trying to keep up with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. So when I heard of The Escape Hunt Experience (www.escapehunt.com) opening up in Saigon (Level 2, 60-62 Cach Mang Thang 8, D3, above The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf), I knew I had to try it.

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*Images by Ngoc Tran

Based on the Escape the Room online games so popular in Japan, The Escape Hunt Experience takes it one step further. Not only must your group of two to five players use clues to open up locks and hidden rooms leading to more clues to escape the room, there’s a story line to follow in order to identify the guilty suspect. The first Escape Hunt Experience was founded in Bangkok in July 2013 by businessman Paul Bart, utilizing his background in psychology, IQ testing and statistics/data analysis. Since then, The Escape Hunt Experience has opened 18 other branches in places like Singapore, Sydney, London and Jakarta, with ambitions to have deals signed for a staggering 300 locations by the end of 2015.

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In anticipation of the game, I gathered my brains trust together, albeit one that had no experience with escape room strategy: a chef, a housewife, a university math geek, a graphics designer and myself, covering all bases of logical and creative thinking, or so we thought. Making our way to the second floor, we passed by old world maps and hieroglyphics, a harbinger of the mental gymnastics ahead. The hallway opened up to a plush lounge that had elements of 221B Baker Street with its heavy damask curtains, vintage clocks and period pieces. We had three scenarios to choose from: Murder in the Palace Room (inspired by Saigon’s Independence Palace), Kidnapping at the Opera Room (a nod to the city’s Opera House) and Blackmail in the Bar Room (modeled after the American War journalists’ haunt in the Caravelle Hotel). Naturally, we went all in and chose the murder room (which only later were we told was slightly more difficult than the other two).

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After a quick introduction by the games master (each room has its own), we were locked into the Palace Room and left to our own devices which included frantically searching for clues and trying to make sense of the various locks and objects scattered around the small space (and some, very well hidden ― consider yourself warned). “Some are clues, some are for decoration and some  are misdirections,” our games master told us. Online reviews said that groups would need to ask the games master for help along the way (each time incurring a one-minute penalty), but we were determined not to press the little button that summoned her in. When the angry red clock in the corner signaled that nearly 20 of our 60 minutes had gone by with us no closer to opening the first lock, we reluctantly called the games master who nudged us in the right direction, helping us find the missing objects we needed. I can’t help but wonder what sort of anthropological study The Escape Hunt Experience could provide, seeing how different genders, ages, personality types and nationalities deal with the pressure of solving puzzles under a time constraint. “Local Vietnamese would rather let the time run out and try to figure things out on their own,” Branch Manager Trang Do told me later. “Tourists and foreigners are more into having fun. Not only will they call the games master in frequently, sometimes they’ll ask him or her to just stay there and join in!”

Time’s Up

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In order to give participants the full experience in all its hair-pulling, I-can’t- believe-we-missed-that glory, games masters will only come in when called (although there’s also a camera monitoring the room in case of emergency) and even then, will try to give minimal assistance with leading questions like: “How many clues did you find?” and “Where have you looked?” to help move the game along.

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Back in the room, the time has flown by and our preconceived strategies have long been discarded in an all-out, frantic attempt to propel ourselves closer to the solution. We’ve now assigned one member to permanently be the button-pusher to call for help. Our downfall comes by trying to solve puzzles with either not enough clues found or by having too much information and not seeing the pattern needed to weed the valid clues from the misdirections.

The experience done, we sip tea in the lounge and gleefully rehash the last hour while posing for pictures with the clothing and props. A Wall of Fame features photos of all the groups who have successfully finished the game in less than 60 minutes. Trang says that the average is actually 58 minutes, making the Ho Chi Minh City game slightly more difficult than the Bangkok (50 minutes) and Singapore (53 minutes) versions, each location with completely different scenarios, strategies and décor, vetted by the global game design team based in Bangkok. We’re thankful there’s no Wall of Shame as we giggle, finger-point and head-scratch our way to failure, but desperate to take advantage of the 10 percent returning customer discount to try out the other two scenarios.

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Seeing the popularity of The Escape Hunt Experience around the world and now experiencing it for ourselves, there’s something to be said for reality games that don’t require screens, technology or special effects ― just good, old fashioned smarts, bringing friends, co-workers and families together for a fast-paced hour of great fun.